South City and Foote Homes Get Going on Federal Grant 

South City is on the way.

Thanks to a nearly $30 million start-up grant from the federal government, this newly defined neighborhood with its brand-new name is promised to transform some blighted, low-income parts of downtown Memphis.

Memphis won the grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) this weekend. It was one of five cities to win a total of $150 million from President Barack Obama's Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. Memphis applied for the same grant four years ago but didn't win it.

After that loss, the city won a $250,000 planning grant from HUD, and local leaders used that money to create the South City plan. To do that, leaders met with residents and organizations in the area and inventoried community assets and programs.

The plan they came up with focused on three main elements: housing, people, and the neighborhood.

click to enlarge A sign for South City hangs on the gate of Foote Homes. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • A sign for South City hangs on the gate of Foote Homes.

The "housing plan" will redevelop Foote Homes, the city's last public housing project. It will transform the aging and institutional-looking 420-unit set of buildings with a "safe, green, and well-managed" complex of 712 apartments. Residents of the new housing will have a range of incomes. The site itself will have a fitness room, community spaces, pocket parks, and "welcoming green spaces."

"This grant is the final piece in our city's process that started many years ago to turn traditional public housing and the warehousing of poor families into livable, vibrant communities," Mayor A C Wharton said during a news conference Monday.

Wharton said the city has transformed its public housing into a series of mixed-income apartment buildings with five Hope VI grants totaling more than $178 million.

The "people plan" will be the pilot project of Wharton's Blueprint for Prosperity. It will focus on giving South City residents access to medical care for healthier lifestyles, employment programs, and educational programs for children.

The "neighborhood plan" includes commercial buildings, a grocery store, a farmers market, an early education center, and more. These will be a mix of new construction and renovating existing spaces throughout South City. The plan also calls for upgraded parks, new access to transportation, blight removal, and "evidence-based public safety strategies."

Wharton promised that building the new South City neighborhood would draw additional public and private investments of $279.6 million. He said similar projects in the past have drawn a total investment of more than $352 million.

South City — the way it's currently drawn — is a massive chunk of downtown Memphis that swallows existing areas like South Main, Beale, and much of the downtown core. It's basically everything between Union to E. H. Crump on the north and south, and Walnut to Front from east to west. There's also a smaller southwestern block bounded by Main, Crump, Kansas, and Georgia.

Monday's news conference announcing the $30 million award was one part victory lap for politicians, government agents, and business leaders who have worked on the South City project (complete with copious name drops, hand shakes, applause, standing ovations, and high praise all around). It was also one part revival ­— complete with quoted scripture and choruses of "amen" — set to churn the spirit of hope of Foote Home residents and local agency personnel gathered.

Most all of them repeated the mantra that the award was "a long time coming."

"There's a part of scripture, I believe, that says 'without vision, the people perish'," said Ed Jennings, a HUD regional administrator. "We are not here for you to perish. We're here for you to be vibrant, for you to be energized. We're looking for this — in a decade from now — to be able to say 'I was there then, and look at what South City is now'."

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